It's been 3 years since I wrote the last blog. I have been writing so many things during that time, including constant revisions on the direction packet which you receive at my classes.
During this time I have taken 12 different cheesmaking classes in Vermont, Massachusetts, and elsewhere, each class from 9am-5pm for 3 to 5 days apiece. That's a lot of weeks of study (I also study all night), numerous plane fares, motel stays, and beautiful walks through new scenery, while my husband takes a turn at the home-front.
I have had the pleasure and privilege of studying under 30 different expert cheesemakers from many states in the USA, also Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Quebec, and lately I have been studying Danish cheesemaking through contacts there. Reading Danish is like listening to my great-grandmother speaking Yiddish long ago; I can "almost" understand it, but not quite all the way. I am learning the value of Google Translate!
After all those years of struggling with incorrect cheesemaking information in popular magazines and books, supermarket pasteurized milk which cannot work, and the mistaken pitfalls of using needlepoint craft mats which won't drain, waxing the cheese (makes it sour) and just about all other types of mistakes that can be made, it is so peaceful and rewarding to be able to go into the kitchen, take a recipe I have just received, and successfully make delicious cheese that comes very close to the marvelous sample cheeses we are served at the classes at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese in Burlington Vermont (where I have taken so many classes).
But I am constantly reminded that most of you have not had the opportunity to see expert after expert demonstrate things over and over until they become a simple beautiful pattern, one that is the same across the globe. This is why I pay so much attention during classes, so that I can be sure to pick up the details that will be most important for your success, since you may only be attending one or two classes with me.
For example, the texture of the yogurt-like curd when it is right for cutting, is different for different cheeses. This is one of the most crucial aspects of making a good tasting cheese, but it's important for someone to show you. That's what I do - I want you to feel it over and over and memorize the feeling in your hand so you can repeat that when you get home. It is simply never a matter of "add the rennet and wait 45 minutes for a clean break." Some cheeses are cut while the curd is as soft as soft pudding, and the "clean break" will be very soft too. Others must be hard with whey covering the curd. And there all are stages in between - each one correct for a particular type of cheese.
Another important texture I want you to learn and memorize is the texture of the curds when they are ready to drain from the whey. To you, they may look like cottage cheese and separate into individual bits an hour or two before they are actually ready! And the most common flavor problems in sour, homemade-tasting cheese stem from not understanding exactly what to feel, see, smell and taste when the curds are at the correct stage. But just like all of cheesemaking, it's easy to do if someone shows you carefully the first time, so that you really understand it.
In closing today, I don't agree that cheesemaking is a matter of trial and error, though many of you tell me that on the phone before the class. In my experience, if the directions you have are wrong, and if you use supermarket pasteurized milk, you can try with all your might and nothing successful will come of it. It's really easier to make cheese correctly, right from the start or after only a couple of tries, by watching someone carefully show you how. Then when you do it your efforts will taste fantastic and store and ripen successfully. You will feel proud and enjoy eating it, and will impress yourself and your friends.
However, don't count on your children being impressed. Depends on the family - some kids will be excited about your cheese. But my kids have explained that even though they know many other people like artisan cheese, they just aren't going to eat it, no hard feelings Mom, they just aren't.
As a kid, I liked cheese a lot. Those Kraft American Singles made the greatest crackling noise as the clear shiny cellophane peeled off, and the chewy rubbery feeling of teeth biting neatly through the slice was so satisfying. I loved viewing the exact size and arrangement of my teeth in the bite shaped scallop. And the completely uniform orangey yellowy color, it was intrigueing and captivating.
I felt very adventurous when Mom started bringing home white American cheese. So we had four kinds of cheese at our house - both the golden and the white, then the circular brilliant orange Colby (and were you supposed to eat the red wax or not?), plus Velveeta.
Then I traveled to Denmark alone when I was 14, to join in an International Girl Scout Jamboree, and to be the house-guest of my Danish penpal (who knew pretty much English). Although everyone there spoke an unintelligible language, and the signs and architecture were baffling, I somehow at least had enough sense and courtesy to eat exactly what my hosts ate, whether or not I knew what it was.
There were open faced sandwiches on thin flavorful dark rye bread, eaten with the knife in the right hand. And toppings for these "smorrebrod" included anything new, or leftover from the last meal. Including cheese.
Tilsit, Havarti, Esrom, Samsoe. Fynbo, Elbo, Tybo, Moribo. Every one of them strong and odorous - and, to my teenage surprise - utterly delicious! I knew that I would NEVER have eaten such substances at home - but in a new setting, I found the wonder of real cheese. None of it bore the slightest resemblance to the creamy insipid versions sold in local stores nowadays - the Havarti was strong, chunky and dark colored, the Tilsit almost sour. I was shocked that I actually loved the strong smelly cheeses and craved them intensely. Once home again, I did find a shop which sold these Danish selections, but my family never shared my enthusiasm.
In a Canadian food co-op in the late 70's I found English style cheeses - stacks of them. Cheshire, Wensleydale, Leicester, and every one of them different and delicious.
During that time I made some cheese, cobbling together barely existing descriptions into a guesswork method. It tasted interesting and strange. The first person I gave some to judged darkly, "You should not be giving that to anyone to eat!"
I haven't thought much about any of this till recently. When I did get some goats in 1993, of course I wanted to make some of those wonderful cheeses I had loved in the past. Turns out the one-day class I did find, omitted a lot of crucial information. Like, how firm is the curd supposed to look and feel when it is ready to remove from the whey? How could I know that the mush we viewed in the class was completely wrong, but was all that could be accomplished with the store bought milk used in the class?
Really, the first 12 years of cheesemaking were simply stumbling in the dark, in complete isolation, although somehow some amazing blue cheese came about, and the ricotta worked most of the time. My sporadic attempts at cheesemaking were interspersed with dairying, raising my human babies, lack of time to concentrate, and not being able to understand the few recipes I could find. And suddenly, a few years ago, the cheese started working, for no perceptible reason. I think it's probably because my kids grew older and I could concentrate.
Meanwhile, I have become a competent herd manager for my goats, their milk tastes extra delicious, and I read all night (my "free time") about goat raising, cheesemaking, and historical references on both which tell how people do it pre-gizmo, pre-electricity, pre-refrigeration.......but for cheesemaking I was running into new roadblocks. And the cheese problems I found were not addressed in any books I could find.
So I took a super two-day workshop from Jim Wallace in Massachusetts. As everything he did made more and more sense, I suddenly realized - I have been making cheese all these years without anyone ever showing me how. Did I only manage to succeed because cheesemaking is so inherently easy and natural anyway? Really, I wonder why I even kept trying all that time. I have no answer.
Once at home I put into practice all he had taught.
And, on a roll, within a few more weeks, I landed in Vermont for three intensive weeks at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheesemaking (VIAC) (featured in Nov. 2009 Martha Stewart's Living magazine, page 12 and 160-169) With a population of 500,000, Vermont leads the nation per capita in licensed cheesemakers (at least that's the claim I heard) - 45 of them so far, and quite a few new ones attending the classes I took were about to start up. (So far there are about 10 such cheesemakers in Missouri, with a few more opening soon). The Vermont Department of Agriculture works cooperatively with VIAC to actively encourage people to open cheesemaking operations, to provide jobs, preserve the working rural landscape, while increasing revenue from product sales, and increased tourism.
VIAC fed us plates and plates of Vermont and other cheeses, all the best types that could be found, and fresh as could be since much of it was locally produced. It was simply out of this world in quality and flavor, barely resembling the pallid versions shipped to St. Louis. Then there were the wonderful classes. The multi-day classes in cheese and milk chemistry, starter cultures, aging, sanitation and pathogens, demonstrations in the cheesemaking room by experts from other countries, unbiased scientific discussion and documentation of raw milk properties, myths exploded, questions answered. My idea of heaven.
And here we are together, you the reader and me, an ordinary person who can, however, probably answer a few questions you have about cheesemaking. So I hope you will take a class and find out how cheese is created. It all starts with the same few ingredients - milk, some bacteria, rennet and salt, and usually that's all - and how does it turn into myriads of evocative satisfying flavors and textures? You can find out. You can make cheese yourself. I will help show you how.
Meryl Winstein, Fall 2009